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Once upon a time

Children with learning disabilities need special storybooks in order to learn reading. A project to create Indian stories within an appropriate vocabulary range is under way

Sadiya Upade  |  Mumbai 

Once upon a time there was a little kid and all that kid wanted was a story to read. He saw his parents reading and going to bookstores. He tagged along, too, but barely found stories he could understand. Why were there no stories for him to read?

It was this question posed by his son Vinayak (who suffers from a rare condition called the Sturge-Weber syndrome) that pushed Bala Narayanaswamy, a consumer research specialist and consultant at Ipsos, into action. He shot off mails to writers, hoping to build a database of stories for kids with learning disabilities. And it was this in turn that gave birth to the Dolch Project a year later.


Started by advertising agency and led by Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, associate creative director at the agency's Delhi office, the Dolch project is a crowd sourcing initiative to collect stories for children like Vinayak who don't have the range of vocabulary that kids of their age normally have. The idea is simple - get people to write stories using the 220 words and 95 nouns that youngsters with learning disabilities are able to recognise according to a list compiled by in 1936. Dolch Words, also called 'sight' words since they are shown rather than taught phonetically, are words that occur frequently in children's books.

"Kids with learning disabilities need stories with a lot of local content," says However, books available in India are neither designed for children with learning disabilities nor do they have any local base. "My idea with the mail was to collect nano stories (about 30-40 words) for kids like Vinayak, since they can't process a lot of data," says The Dolch Project aims to create short stories in the local context using this limited vocabulary.

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Joyeeta Sen, senior special educator at Ummeed, an NGO that helps children with developmental disabilities, says it is difficult for youngsters with learning disabilities to grasp the complexities of the English language. And since reading is the starting point, they stumble. Such children can be taught using Dolch words.

Barring Dr Suess' The Cat in the Hat series, which uses Dolch words, there is nothing substantial out there for these kids, Dasgupta says, adding, "How much fun can it be to read the same books over and over again?"

The Dolch initiative, just over a month old, has already managed to collect around 80 stories for juveniles with special learning needs. These include stories about a pig who wants to fly, of a boy with a big green heart, about toys and birthdays and a golden-haired girl.

"The Dolch Project has got the idea off the ground brilliantly by getting users to contribute content," says

"The core idea is to publish a book using these stories," says Dasgupta, who is already in talks with publishers for the book. While he doesn't disclose whether it will be a single book or a series, he says the book will have illustrations and will not be text heavy.

The long term plan, Dasgupta adds, is to rope in professors to compile a list of such commonly used words in regional languages. There are so many children who only have access to regional languages, hence the project needs to expand to reach these kids, says Dasgupta.

Narayanswamy concurs, and also calls for the updation of the Dolch list itself, which is quite old now. He also talks about creating small comics for such kids using apps.

How many children are affected by learning disabilities?
Learning disability can be termed as a group of disorders in listening, speaking, reading, writing and mathematics. Specifically, reading disability is called dyslexia.

While awareness is increasing because of workshops organised by both government and NGOs, the number of children affected by learning disabilities is increasing too. Sen says that in a class of 65 (average size of a classroom), there might be 8-10 students with some level of learning disability. The disability usually manifests itself with other developmental disabilities, she says.

Radhika Misquitta, director (education) at the Gateway School of Mumbai, says in mainstream schools the number might be around 10 per cent. The challenging part is raising awareness among teachers and getting the learning strategy right, says Sen, who admits that literature for affected children is minimal.

So, is it difficult to write a story using just 220 words?
Ricardo Vaz, copywriter at Asymmetrique who wrote the story about the big green heart, says, "I started the process keeping a moral in mind, something that the child would be able to take away from the story. When I kept the language a bare minimum, the story just flowed."

His story tells of a boy called Rohan, who suffers from colour blindness. He thinks he has drawn a red butterfly, but is ridiculed for having made a green one. Heartbroken, he asks why he can't see red like others. His father tells him to be happy as he has a big green heart just like his butterfly.

Vaz's tip for people who want to try and write: "Read the Dolch list a couple of times. Once you get through writing the first few sentences using Dolch words, you get a sense of the limitations, and writing becomes easier."

So are you willing to pick up the pen and give kids like Vinayak the wings to fly?

THE GOLDEN GIRL

With shiny golden hair
And bright blue eyes
There lives a girl
Between the sun and sky
She may have a name
Or she may not
If I was her
I would like
Gold-Blue Trott

Her golden hair shone
They cut it down
She wore a frown
Tore her gown
And left the town

But then the hair grew
It would grow she knew!
Her bright blue eyes shone too!!!
(Written by 9-year-old Sparshi from Kolkata using Dolch words)

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